Cult king in orbit on ‘Mars’

Times Staff Writer

It started innocently enough: Joss Whedon had just watched what he calls “a Veronica Marsathon” and he couldn’t help himself as he sent his love for UPN’s “Veronica Mars” out in cyberspace via his website,

“I can no longer restrain myself. Best. Show. Ever,” posted Whedon, known in the TV universe as the king of cult for creating one-of-a-kind shows -- “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and even the canceled “Firefly,” which led to the feature film “Serenity.” “Seriously, I’ve never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn’t making, and maybe even more than those,” he wrote. “Crazy crisp dialogue. Incredibly tight plotting. Big emotion, I mean BIG, and charismatic actors and I was just DYING from the mystery and the relationships and PAIN, this show knows from pain and no, I don’t care, laugh all you want, I had to share this. These guys know what they’re doing on a level that intimidates me. It’s the Harry Potter of shows. There. I said it.”

Whedon figured he was cyber-chatting with his readers and fans. All he wanted was to encourage them to sample “Veronica Mars,” the drama starring mega-talent Kristen Bell that is hailed by critics as the cult successor to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Now in its second season, the show has given UPN a much-needed boost in prestige, despite its modest ratings; fans of the show, like Whedon, were instrumental in keeping “Veronica” on the air.


The mystery-drama about a teen sleuth who was dealt a series of tough blows (her alcoholic mother abandoned her, she was date-raped, her best friend was killed) and overcomes them, in part, by helping her private investigator father, was doing better this season, but could clearly use a ratings stunt. So, this being Hollywood, it wasn’t long before Whedon got an offer from creator Rob Thomas and executive producer Joel Silver to make his TV debut in an episode of the show.

“It wasn’t like I made a formal announcement. I was just too damn excited and I wanted to share it,” explained Whedon who appears in tonight’s 9 o’clock episode. “I have a better understanding of what ‘Buffy’ fans went through from watching ‘Veronica Mars.’ I want to talk to other people who have seen it.”

In the episode, Whedon guest stars as Car Rental Guy. He has an amusing scene with Veronica, who is trying to figure out who deliberately crashed a school bus with the intentions of killing her. Viewers this year are seeing a slightly more mature and more emotionally open Veronica, who has given her heart to her boyfriend, come to terms with her relationship with her mother and has an after-school job at a coffee shop.

Other shows have been compared with his beloved “Buffy,” but Whedon says this is the first time it has made him proud “as opposed to irate.”

“ ‘Veronica Mars’ combines all the genres,” he explained. “She’s not just mystery-solving gal; she’s dealing with the mysteries of the human condition. So it takes what it has, a catchy idea about an empowered and cool outcast girl in high school, and then it digs well below.... The mix of humor and pain and romance is exactly what we tried to do on ‘Buffy.’ But these guys actually work out complex plots in terms of mysteries, and that takes a knowledge of structure that I cannot claim. So in that way, I’d say it’s actually got something ‘Buffy’ didn’t have.”

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” premiered in 1997 and was on the air for seven years, first on the WB and then on UPN, where it moved for its last two seasons when UPN offered to pay roughly $22 million more than the WB to get the show. When Whedon posted his comments, Thomas said, “it made my week.”


“The toughest people to flatter are the people working in your same milieu,” Thomas said. “If five years from now someone else had the new ‘Veronica Mars,’ my reaction would not be to say, ‘You’re right, it’s great.’ The human reaction is to say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a pale facsimile of what we were doing.’ So I think he’s a very classy guy and very cool for him to say it.”

This season, UPN President Dawn Ostroff moved “Veronica Mars” to Wednesday nights so that it could benefit from its hit lead-in, “America’s Next Top Model.” Despite averaging just 2.5 million viewers, Ostroff was persuaded to keep the show because the audience had grown as the first season drew to a close and fans campaigned on websites for the show. The support of critics and the media, Ostroff said, also played an important role in her decision.

“There’s a certain quality that you strive for when you develop shows in TV,” Ostroff said. “It’s very hard to find a show that feels unique ... and when that show comes along, you really have to nurture it, protect it, and you need to do everything you can to support it in the right way.”

But just as Thomas was getting ready to celebrate his “flattering” time slot, ABC announced it was moving “Lost” from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., pitting the teen detective against the blockbuster adventure series. Even so, “Veronica Mars” is up 28% from last year among women ages 18 to 34 and up 18% in total viewers. The show’s last original episode, which aired on Oct. 26, scored the series’ largest audience, 3.6 million -- but as Thomas is quick to point out, “That night ‘Lost’ was a repeat.”

“I wish we could just air on weeks when ‘Lost’ was doing repeats,” he said. “I’m not just trying to do a show that’s just for the ‘Veronica Mars’ cult. I want more people watching it. But honestly, I would he very happy with ‘Buffy’ numbers. ‘Buffy’ numbers would keep it on the air and would be populist enough for me.”

That makes sense coming from a former high school teacher and author of teen novels who wrote for “Dawson’s Creek,” was an executive producer on “Cupid” and “spent the last few years wishing I was [Whedon] in the sense that I wanted the cool hip teen show that everyone is talking about on the air.” “Buffy” averaged 4.2 million viewers the two years it was on UPN.


“We’re both sort of writing in the ‘Heathers’ school of stylized teen dialogue, pretty quippy and bantery,” Thomas said. “We both imposed metaphors on a high school setting. He did high school as a horror show, and we’re doing high school as a noir piece. In our own ways, we re-imagined high school to fit a distinct style of storytelling.”

The 25-year-old Bell credits Thomas with capturing “the narrative of an 18-year-old girl perfectly, which is also the freakiest thing about the show. They’re real problems. It’s utterly relatable. And Joss is such an intelligent guy and he gets the show completely and he was just very funny. It was so cool to have him on set because we’re hopefully following in his footsteps, and he really knows how to write for cult fans.”